June 11, 2008

A Strategy for American Power: Energy, Climate, and National Security

Americans consume 22 million barrels of oil per day, 60 percent of it imported from other countries. Given that U.S. domestic oil production has been in decline since about 1970, the amount of imports will continue to rise.

The United States does not have much room to maneuver around this dependence. Ninety-six percent of road transportation (approximately 242 million vehicles) depends on petroleum products (gasoline and diesel), with little ability to change that in the near term. In turn, every sector of our economy, from agricultural to industrial to residential, depends on transportation for productivity.

Most global oil suppliers are hostile to the United States, unstable, undemocratic, corrupt, or some combination of these factors, which puts global supplies at risk and drives up prices. Of the top ten holders of reserves in the world, all but one are considered to be failed states or in danger of becoming failed states, according to the Failed States Index.

U.S. energy vulnerability is likely to increase as oil falls into fewer and fewer hands, which is inevitable given that two-thirds of oil reserves are in the Middle East, the productivity of reserves is declining almost everywhere else, and global demand for oil is ballooning (demand is forecast to increase about 46 percent in the next 25 years).

The next largest fuel source in America, electricity, is 50 percent dependent on a highly polluting fuel, coal. At current rates of consumption, the United States has enough coal to last 200 years.

Coal is the number one contributor to manmade greenhouse gas emissions, and there is a strong, scientific consensus in the United States and around the world that these emissions are changing the global climate.

Emissions have been growing fast — by 70 percent between 1970 and 2004 — and will have to be cut dramatically over the next 40 years (between 70 and 90 percent) in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The United States is projected to experience a full range of effects, from warming temperatures to severe and unpredictable weather.

Watch a discussion of this report at the CNAS 2008 Annual June Conference:

Talking Points

• True energy security means protecting our way of life and our future from the security, economic, and environmental risks associated with fossil fuels.

• The United States needs an energy security strategy the entire nation can support in order to cut our dependence on oil and our emissions of greenhouse gases.

• The temptation today is to address oil dependence and climate change as separate issues, but that would be a serious mistake — energy security means we need to address both challenges together or we will only improve one at the expense of the other.

Oil Dependence and Climate Change

• The United States is relying on unstable and hostile states for our oil supply, a problem that will only get worse over time as more countries use more oil and fewer are able to supply it.

• The oil market is global. Even if oil prices go down, we will still be vulnerable to hostile and unstable suppliers and damage from natural disasters.

• Both oil and coal are contributing to global climate change, which could have terrible security consequences as nations around the world, including the United States, struggle with droughts, food shortages, floods, heat waves, and unpredictable and severe weather.

• Climate change is a near-term problem. Even though the worst consequences may not occur for decades, our actions today will determine just how bad those consequences will be.

The Energy Security Strategy

• There is no silver bullet when it comes to energy security, but there is much we can do to protect ourselves.

• America needs a strategy for dealing with this threat, just as the strategy of containment helped the United States to prevail in the Cold War.

• A 70-40 strategy — cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent over 40 years — will wean the American economy off fossil fuels.

• The strategy will change America’s fuel supply and its demand for fuels.

• First and foremost, to change our fuel supply and demand, we need to invest far more in innovation — there is great hope for the future, most likely through a combination of innovations, such as new fuel sources, electric cars, and carbon capture and sequestration.

• There may not be any silver bullets, but there are silver linings: an investment in energy innovation is an investment in our economic future and competitiveness, with new, high-quality jobs at home.

• The second thing we can do is tap America’s most neglected energy resource: conservation. By using energy more efficiently everywhere — in cars, with light bulbs, in buildings, and in power plants — we can rely on a domestic resource with no security or environmental downsides.

• Finally, we have to do more at home and with friends and partners overseas to protect the energy infrastructure and prevent a crisis. We can’t let terrorists who attack oil fields or power outages from natural disasters derail our nation.

How We Make the Strategy Work

• Leadership is essential: the next President of the United States and the next Congress must make America’s energy security a top national priority — this is a matter of our security, our economic strength, our health, and caring for the land.

• The leaders and opinion-makers that shape public life in America need to do more to share good information and motivate Americans all over the country.

• The American public understands the risks and dangers of the current situation, but all Americans have to play a bigger part in meeting this challenge. Energy security requires a national strategy, but it also requires the individual acts of millions of people.

• The United States should work in partnership with more nations — China is a country we can cooperate with to make sure we both have the energy we need at prices we can afford with a climate our children can prosper in.

• The next president must raise the importance of energy security and stability as a foreign policy priority, particularly with some of our closest partners and allies, such as Mexico.

• If an oil crisis does come, Americans need to stick to the plan, pull together and stand strong, the way we did after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

• Energy security is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue — it’s an American issue: for the security of the nation, Americans need to come together to cut down our oil dependence and lower the risk of climate change.

• We have an obligation to protect our children. We have an obligation to secure the nation. We have an obligation to be good stewards of the Earth.


  • Christine Parthemore

  • Joshua Busby

  • Sharon E. Burke

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